Monster Hunter (also known as Dark Was the Night) is the second feature from indie producer turned director Jack Heller. The film draws inspiration from a real-life phenomenon referred to as the ‘Devil’s Footprints’, where inexplicable hoof-shaped footprints scared the bejesus out of Devon locals in 1855. Building on this folktale, Monster Hunter utilises the fictional provincial town setting of ‘Maiden Woods’ to spin its monster-mystery yarn.
The prologue opens as all ambitious monster flicks should, with a bloody introduction to the beastly subject of the film. We then head to the rural and quaint Maiden Woods where Sherriff Paul Shields (Kevin Durand) and his deputy Donny (Lukas Haas) are mulling over a missing horse situation, the first of what transpires to be many incidents caused by the mischievous beast. For a low-budget horror film, there is actually a welcome attentiveness to characterisation as we learn that both Paul and Donny are battling inner demons. Paul is dealing with the loss of his infant child that he blames upon himself, and similarly Donny has moved from upstate New York after feeling responsible for the death of his partner. There is somewhat of a redemptive feel to the narrative as both men slowly come to terms with the fact that it is their responsibility to protect the small town community from the surreptitious threat.
Despite its best attempts though, Monster Hunter still ultimately feels like a generic horror film. An isolated small town community ends up reliant on a stoic hero to banish the threat. This isn’t exactly unique stuff. Kevin Durand ends up playing a hybrid cross between Batman and Gary Cooper in High Noon. The clichés don’t stop there either; there are countless ‘glimpse and you’ll miss it’ shots of the beast (no doubt due to budget limitations) and there is even an ‘it’s in the house’ scene thrown in for good measure.
Despite adhering to many genre conventions, the movie isn’t without its merits. One interesting, thematic aspect of the narrative (whether intentional or not) is the presence of a pervading religious subtext. Sherriff Paul Shields at first seems disillusioned with the concept of religion as he talks with the town’s pastor early in the film, but by the stories climax the whole town is taking literal and symbolic refuge in the church. There is no mistaking the satanic iconography of the beast with its biped hoofs. Perhaps the film is an allegorical statement on the threat of atheism in small town America? Perhaps not. Monster Hunter also executes a foreboding suspense in an effectual manner, as lingering takes are complimented by a jarring, cumbersome score.
Taking all things into account, Monster Hunter doesn’t quite do enough innovative to break free from its budgetary and generic constraints. The whole plot is pretty tight though, and it may just warrant a watch for the slightly unconventional finale.
MONSTER HUNTER / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: JACK HELLER / SCREENPLAY: TYLER HISEL / STARRING: KEVIN DURAND, LUKAS HAAS, STEVE AGEE, NICK DAMICI / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 12TH